Lab accident is ‘most likely but least probed’ COVID origin, State Dept. memo says

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Wuchang Station in Wuhan, China, is pictured in 2013. (Credit: Tauno Tõhk)

State Department officials considered a lab accident to be the most likely cause of COVID-19 in the pandemic’s early months and worried that international virologists may help with a coverup, according to a 2020 memo obtained by U.S. Right to Know.

“Origin of the outbreak: The Wuhan labs remained the most likely but least probed,” reads the topline. 

The memo is written as a BLUF – “bottom line up front” – a style of communication used in the military. The identity of the author or authors is unknown. 

In response to questions from a reporter, a State Department spokesperson referred U.S. Right to Know to an inconclusive 90-day review by the intelligence community in 2021.

“BLUF: There is no direct, smoking gun evidence to prove that a leak from Wuhan labs caused the pandemic, but there is circumstantial evidence to suggest such is the case,” the memo reads.

Apparently drafted in spring 2020, the memo details circumstantial evidence for the “lab leak” theory — the idea that COVID-19 originated at one of the labs in Wuhan, China, the pandemic’s epicenter. 

The memo raises concerns about the “massive amount” of research on novel coronaviruses apparently conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control lab. 

“The central issue involves the WCDC and WIV’s obsession with collecting and testing a massive amount of virus-carrying bats,” the memo reads.  

A progenitor of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is believed to have circulated in bats.

The memo also flags biosafety lapses at both labs, calling the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s “management of deadly viruses and virus-carrying lab animals … appallingly poor and negligent.”

The memo provides an extraordinary window into behind-the-scenes concerns about a lab accident among U.S. foreign policy leaders, even as this line of inquiry was deemed a conspiracy theory by international virologists, some of whom had undisclosed conflicts of interest.

The memo also calls into question these virologists’ impartiality. 

Shi Zhengli, a Wuhan Institute of Virology coronavirus researcher nicknamed the “Bat Woman,” has forged wide-reaching international collaborations, including with prestigious Western virologists, the memo notes. 

“Suspicion lingers that Shi holds an important and powerful position in the field in China and has extensive cooperation with many [international] virologists who might be doing her a favor,” it reads. 

Though perhaps unknown to State Department officials at the time, one of the most influential scientists “debunking” the lab leak theory in the media, EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak, had undisclosed ties to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

China’s clampdown 

The memo laments that “the most logical place to investigate the virus origin has been completely sealed off from inquiry by the [Chinese Communist Party].”

“A gag order to both places was issued on [January 1, 2020], and a Major General from the [People’s Liberation Army] took over the WIV since early January,” it states. 

China has strictly controlled information about the pandemic’s origins, including barring access to the mine shaft where one of the viruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, and pressuring the investigators preparing a 2021 World Health Organization report. 

The memo even suggests that other hypotheses may have served as a distraction from a probe of the city’s extensive research on novel coronaviruses. 

“All other theories are likely to be a decoy to prevent an inquiry [into] the WCDC and WIV,” it states.

While certain portions of the memo were previously reported in the Washington Times, many details, including the depth of concern about a coverup, were not previously known. The memo has never been published in full. 

The circumstantial evidence

The circumstantial evidence presented in the memo seems to draw from public sources. 

Some of that evidence has been shored up over the last two years.

For example, it makes note of so-called “gain-of-function” research Shi collaborated on that made coronaviruses more virulent and transmissible in the lab. 

“[The Wuhan Institute of Virology]’s lead coronavirus scientist Shi Zhengli conducted genetic engineering of bat virus to make it easily transmissible to humans,” the memo states.

That has since been verified by media reports, in peer reviewed papers and U.S. federal grant reports

The memo cites a 2015 paper coauthored by Shi titled “A SARS-like cluster of circulating bat coronaviruses shows potential for human emergence” that described creating a “chimera,” or engineered virus, with the spike protein of a coronavirus from a Chinese horseshoe bat. 

Editors at Nature Medicine added a note in March 2020 cautioning that the article was “being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered.”

“There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus,” the disclaimer still reads. 

But the memo shows that the State Department indeed considered the paper relevant to the pandemic’s origins. 

The memo also describes lapses in safety monitoring at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan’s Chinese CDC lab. U.S. Embassy cables describing poor safety monitoring at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have also been reported by the Washington Post.

And it has also been verified that some hypotheses were indeed meant to serve as a decoy, according to another State Department cable released by U.S. Right to Know last year. 

A Nov. 2020 cable stated that the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 could be related to imported seafood products was meant to “deflect PRC responsibility.”

Other bits of information cited in the memo have not been verified. 

The memo describes online posts by a Chinese national with the username Wu Xiaohua who accused Wuhan’s scientists of “playing God,” making coronaviruses more dangerous through animal vectors in the lab, and not properly cremating virus-carrying lab animals. Wu even claimed that laboratory animals were sold as pets, and that laboratory eggs were eaten by lab staff. 

“Wu’s charges … are specific and have not been convincingly rebutted by WIV,” the memo states. 

The memo also raises concerns about Huang Yanlin, a former employee of the Wuhan Institute of Virology whose profile was scrubbed from its website, “fueling speculation of foul play,” it notes. 

“WIV has failed to convince the world of the whereabouts of its former employee Huang Yanlin, rumored to be Patient Zero,” it reads. “Huang herself has never appeared in public and has since ‘disappeared.’”

Further evidence of a clampdown at the Wuhan Institute of Virology surfaced in a State Department cable first reported by U.S. Right to Know last year. The cable stated that lab workers were instructed not to talk about COVID-19 in January 2020, according to a Guangzhou-based blogger’s social media post, before it was censored.

The memo also cites a controversial study by Indian researchers drawing a comparison between the SARS-CoV-2 genome and HIV that was withdrawn from a preprint server after other researchers said it had serious flaws

Chinese CDC

The memo also describes circumstantial evidence suggesting the possibility of an accident at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention lab located near the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market where most early COVID-19 cases are believed to have been clustered. 

The lab houses as many as 10,000 virus-carrying bats, it alleges, citing Chinese state media. 

The lab is a BSL-2 lab, lower than the BSL-4 lab required for the highest risk pathogens.

“The WCDC is a Level 2 virus safety facility which is low. The vast amount of experimental bats poses [a] serious safety issue,” it states. 

The lab’s interest in viruses that circulate in bats is corroborated by a Chinese documentary in which leading virologist Tian Junhua tells filmmakers that bat caves “became our main battlefield.”

The memo alleges Tian once described being “rained on” by bat excrement and quarantining for 14 days, and notes that 14 days is the same quarantine period first recommended for COVID-19 exposure.

U.S. Right to Know obtained the memo on March 24 through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department as part of an investigation into possible links between risky viral research and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

All of the documents about the origins of COVID-19 that USRTK has obtained by public records requests are available here while the full tranche of State Department documents can be found here.

Written by Emily Kopp 

Keith Kloor: How a science journalist worked behind the scenes with industry allies

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Keith Kloor is a freelance journalist and an adjunct journalism faculty member at New York University who has written for Nature, Science Insider, Slate and dozens of articles for Discover Magazine promoting genetically engineered foods and attacking critics of the agrichemical industry, while also assisting industry allies behind the scenes.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know, posted in the UCSF Chemical Industry Documents Library, reveal instances in which Kloor coached and edited his sources, obscured the industry ties of a source, and selectively reported on information in ways that bolstered industry narratives. Kloor declined to respond to questions for this article.

Preemptive, selective release of FOIA emails

From 2015 to 2017, Kloor reported for Nature, Science Insider, Discover, Issues in Science and Technology, and Slate on a public records investigation by U.S. Right to Know that revealed undisclosed ties between the agrichemical industry and publicly funded academics who promote agrichemical products, including University of Florida Professor Kevin Folta. In each of these published pieces, Kloor framed the public records requests as an undue burden on academics.

The emails obtained via state records requests reveal that Kloor himself was part of the story he was reporting on; he had attended agrichemical industry-funded message-training conferences with Dr. Folta and assisted Dr. Folta with messaging. The correspondence shows that Dr. Folta reached out to Kloor to suggest a “preemptive” release of his emails “but selectively” to help mitigate the damage of the documents – which Kloor did, in the journal Nature. At the same time as Kloor was covering the story for top science publications, the documents show he participated in discussions with industry insiders about the challenges posed by the public records requests.

Timeline of coverage and collaborations:

  • March 2014: Kloor attended the Biotech Literacy Project boot camp, an industry-funded conference to train scientists and journalists how to frame the debate over GMOs and pesticides. The conference was hosted by Dr. Folta and organized by Genetic Literacy Project and Academics Review, two groups that partner with Monsanto on public relations projects.
  • July 2014: Monsanto agreed fund Dr. Folta’s proposal for $25,000 for promotional events that Dr. Folta described as a “solution to the biotech communications problem” that arose from activist campaigns to label GMOs. (Folta donated the money to a food bank after the proposal became public.)
  • Emails show that in August and November of 2014, Kloor provided Dr. Folta with messaging advice about how to best challenge GMO critics (see examples below).
  • February 2015: U.S. Right to Know submitted public records requests for correspondence to and from professors at public universities, including Dr. Folta, to investigate undisclosed collaborations with the agrichemical industry.
  • February 2015: Kloor wrote about the USRTK investigation for Science Insider, quoting Dr. Folta and other industry allies who were “rattled” by the open records requests they described as a “fishing expedition” that could have a “chilling effect on academic freedom.”
  • March 2015: Kloor gave a presentation to the Cornell Alliance for Science, a GMO promotion group that was campaigning against the public records requests.
  • June 2015: Kloor appeared at a second industry-funded Biotech Literacy Project boot camp message-training held at UC Davis, on a panel to discuss “FOIA Challenges” with Dr. Folta and University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Bruce Chassy, whom emails later revealed had also been secretly receiving funds from Monsanto.
  • August 1, 2015: Dr. Folta emailed Kloor to report that his emails had been turned over to U.S. Right to Know in response to the open records requests. “I started going through this last night and I’m thinking that a preemptive release of the materials is a good idea, but selectively,” Dr. Folta wrote. He suggested a framing that “exposes the danger of the FOIA laws.”
  • August 6, 2015: Kloor reported on the emails in a forgiving article for Nature. The emails “do not suggest scientific misconduct or wrongdoing by Dr. Folta. But they do reveal his close ties to agriculture giant Monsanto,” Kloor reported.
  • August 8, 2015: Jon Entine, who organized the industry-funded messaging boot camps, complained to Kloor about his use of the term “close ties” to describe Dr. Folta’s relationship with Monsanto. “It’s both incorrect and inflammatory. It reflects poorly on what otherwise was first class reporting,” Entine wrote. Kloor said the term was “arguable” but backed away from it: “In my defense, I didn’t write that – it was added in the final edits.” He then tipped Entine off about the emails: “You and I should also talk. You are in the emails.” Kloor was also in the emails, which he did not mention in his reporting. (Subsequent requests turned up more emails involving Kloor.)
  • September 5, 2015: a front-page New York Times article by three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton reported that Monsanto recruited academics, including Dr. Folta, to fight against GMO labeling. The Times posted emails from Dr. Folta and Dr. Chassy revealing undisclosed industry payments to both men and their collaborations with agrichemical companies and their PR firms.
  • Kloor continued to engage in the debate as a journalist for industry events, such as a February 2016 forum hosted by GMO Answers, a marketing campaign to promote GMOs funded by Bayer/Monsanto, Syngenta, BASF, and DowDuPont, and managed by the public relations firm Ketchum.
  • Dr. Folta is now suing the New York Times and Eric Lipton over the 2015 article. Kloor reported on Dr. Folta’s lawsuit for Slate in 2017 without disclosing his now-public collaborations with Dr. Folta and other industry insiders.

Coaching, editing sources; obscuring industry ties

The emails suggest Kloor worked with his sources behind the scenes to hone their messaging in support of a key agrichemical industry cause: convincing wary consumers to accept genetically engineered foods. One of these sources was Dr. Kevin Folta, the University of Florida professor who was the key figure Kloor featured in stories he wrote for science publications about academic transparency.

Campaign to convert Bill Nye

In November 2014, Kloor used his Discover blog to challenge Bill Nye’s critiques about GMOs with an “Open Letter to Bill Nye from a Plant Scientist” signed by Dr. Folta. Emails indicate that Kloor asked Dr. Folta to challenge Nye, came up with the idea of the open letter and coached Dr. Folta on how to write it. He then edited Dr. Folta’s biography to avoid mentioning industry funding, according to the emails.

The emails show that Kloor drafted a bio for Dr. Folta that included the line, “No research is sponsored by Monsanto.” Dr. Folta asked him to adjust that sentence, noting that Monsanto indirectly sponsored some of his biotech outreach efforts and that he had received research money from a small biotech firm. Kloor decided on a bio that avoided mentioning Dr. Folta’s industry funding entirely: “his research is sponsored by federal and state agencies.”

In the email below, Kloor provided guidance to Dr. Folta about how to write the letter to Nye:

Around that time, Monsanto was also lobbying Nye to change his position on GMOs, which they eventually succeeded in doing. A March 2015 Washington Post story about Nye’s conversion claimed that Nye’s criticisms of GMOs “had angered many scientists,” but linked only to Dr. Folta’s letter on Kloor’s blog.

Discover: “Not our policy to prompt sources”

Emails from August 2014 show Kloor offering messaging advice to Dr. Folta and another source, Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, the media director of the GMO promotion group Biofortified. Kloor asked them to critique an article by Carole Bartolotto, a dietician who had written critically about GMOs. The emails show that Kloor edited the comments and suggested ways to strengthen the messaging: “My advice: keep the language as neutral and judgment-free as possible. You’re aiming for the fence-sitters, who may well be turned off by language that comes off as heavy handed.”

Kloor posted the Bartolotto critique on his Discover blog and described Drs. Folta and von Mogel as “two scientists who receive no funding from the biotech industry.” Emails later revealed that, just a few weeks earlier, Monsanto had agreed to fund Dr. Folta’s promotional efforts for GMOs; and, the previous summer, Dr. Folta planned to visit Hawaii to lobby against pesticide restrictions on a trip organized and paid for by a pesticide industry trade group (Dr. von Mogel was also included on those emails). Kloor’s article still appears on the Discover website without updates or corrections.

For a 2017 Huffington post article, journalist Paul Thacker asked Discover magazine editor Becky Lang to comment on the Bartolotto emails. Lang declined to comment on specifics, but said: “Of course, it’s not our policy now, and never has been, to prompt sources to write criticism, edit criticism, and then run it as independent. It’s also not our policy to ever help sources try to hide their industry relationships.” (Kloor’s Discover blog ended in ended in April 2015.)

Jon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project connection  

Kloor’s prolific writings in defense of the agrichemical industry can be viewed on the website of the Genetic Literacy Project, a promotional website for the agrichemical industry that features dozens of articles written by Kloor or quoting his work. Genetic Literacy Project is run by Jon Entine, a longtime PR operative who promotes and defends chemical industry interests. Entine is principal of the PR firm ESG MediaMetrics, whose clients included Monsanto. Kloor and Entine use similar messaging and frame the issues in similar ways, and appear to have a close relationship, according to the emails.

In a July 2013 email to a pesticide industry lobby group, Entine described Kloor as a “very good friend of mine” who could help broker a meeting with another Discover blogger to write about agrichemical industry activities in Hawaii. Another email shows Entine connecting Kloor with Rebecca Goldin at George Mason University to discuss “abuse of FOIA.” Goldin works with Entine’s former employer STATS, a group journalists have described as a “disinformation campaign” that uses tobacco tactics to manufacture doubt about chemical risk.

In another email from October 2014, Kloor was the only journalist included in an email warning from Ketchum public relations firm about a possible hacking operation on corporate websites by the group Anonymous. The email was forwarded by Adrianne Massey, managing director of the Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), to a group of industry allies, including Entine.

“I have no idea what type of attack. Private sector entities may be their only targets, but I don’t want any of you to be harmed who see you as industry allies,” Massey wrote.

Kloor was looped in on the email by Dr. Channapatna Prakash, a GMO advocate and dean at Tuskegee University. Also included in the email were Jay Byrne (former director of corporate communications for Monsanto), Val Giddings (former vice president of the biotech trade association), Karl Haro von Mogel (media director of Biofortified), Bruce Chassy and David Tribe (co-founders of the Monsanto front group Academics Review), and other key industry allies who promote GMOs and advocate for deregulation: Kevin Folta, Henry Miller, Drew Kershen, Klaus AmmannPiet van der Meer and Martina Newell-McGloughlin.

Industry allies frequently promote Kloor’s work; see tweets by Robb Fraley of MonsantoJon Entine, Genetic Literacy Project and the agrichemical industry trade group CBI.

Further reading